Elite Traveler profiles Eneko Atxa, head chef of Azurmendi in Larrabetzu, Spain
As a young boy growing up in the Basque Country – a region renowned for its gastronomic cuisine – Chef Eneko Atxa watched his mother and grandmother working for hours in the kitchen at home. “They were happy through making the rest of the family happy,” Atxa explains. It was here that his love affair with food began.
At only 35 years old, Atxa is a chef with an impressive resume. He began his career at 15, has worked alongside the likes of Martin Berasategui and opened Azurmendi in 2005, gaining three Michelin stars in just five years. Guests are welcomed with a tour of the restaurant, where they are invited to view the kitchen, garden and greenhouse. “We begin outside with some appetizers,” he says. “We then move guests to the kitchen to explain how we work. Then finally they arrive at the table with a main menu. That is the experience at Azurmendi.” It is evident that for Atxa, fine dining is more than just about the cuisine: It is an all encompassing experience. Unlike many Michelin-starred restaurants, there is no “signature dish” here. “I love it when a guest asks for the same dish they had the last time. This is their signature dish. We don’t try to make something convenient for everyone. We try to create an experience for each guest,” he explains. Not only does Atxa grow vegetables in the garden for cooking purposes, the diners are also encouraged to take the vegetables too. He says: “I wanted to have my own garden, and not just to grow my own ingredients to use in the kitchen. I wanted to show the whole world our local products and to develop a showroom to have a view of everything I use every season.”
When guests enter the garden, they are encouraged to take their pick from a selection of local tomatoes – only to discover they have in fact been stuffed and pinned to the bush. When guests do settle down to enjoy some of the finest cuisine in the Basque region, they can also expect to enjoy cocktails made via a wooden txalaparta, a specialist Basque musical instrument. Not only is his love for the culinary cuisine and traditions of the Basque Country evident, the restaurant itself is groundbreaking in many ways. Perched on a hillside just outside Bilbao, the striking glass and steel structure showcases the latest in eco-friendly sustainable architecture.
“We often speak about the dishes, the techniques and the service. But sometimes we don’t realize that the area where all these things happen [the restaurant] gets a bit lost. I think the context of the message is very important,” says Atxa. The restaurant boasts a rainwater harvesting system, with a tank on the roof, ready to be used on the garden. Solar panels help produce around 40 percent of the electricity used in the kitchen. A geothermal system transfers heat from the ground, ensuring the building maintains a stable temperature of around 18 to 21 degrees all year round. “There are many things happening that the guests aren’t always aware of because they’re not seen. But I believe it is important to be sustainable,” he says. And this attention to detail may be the secret to his swift rise to the top. “Our goal every day is to earn those three Michelin stars,” he says. “However our goal isn’t only to achieve Michelin stars, it is to make a special experience for each and every one of our guests. It is about making them happy.” And in that, Azurmendi has undoubtedly succeeded.